(Justin McIlwee/Indianapolis Indians)
Back on Deck-er (6/10)
The first-place Indianapolis Indians bolstered their ranks with the addition of a gap-power bat, laser-strength arm and long flowing hair.
In sum: Jaff Decker is back.
Since returning from a stint on the disabled list on May 22, Decker has hammered opposing pitchers with hits in 14 of 17 games, a .339 average and four extra-base hits. The dialed-in outfielder has driven in nine runs and swiped three bases during that stretch.
“I kind of hit a bump in the road, a little tweak in the hand, but I worked real hard when I went down to (Pirate City Complex in Florida) to rehab,” Decker said. “I came back swinging; It feels really good.”
Decker was also sidelined at the break of Spring Training and began the year on a Major League rehab assignment for the Pittsburgh Pirates, thanks to his lingering calf injury from camp. After he was reinstated and optioned to the Tribe, Decker suffered an additional setback with a sprained hand from sliding through home plate on April 14 at Victory Field.
The 25 year old said he tried to play through the injury before ultimately landing on the disabled list on April 27.
“It’s hard. That (wear and tear) doesn’t usually happen until July – the middle-half of the year – but it started a little earlier for me,” Decker said. “I had time to step back and view some things and work on some things.”
The Tribe’s 2014 Defensive Outfielder of the Year spent a week in Bradenton, Florida at the Pirates extended spring training facility, where he eased himself back into facing live pitching. The non-game scenarios gave him the chance to make adjustments to his approach during at-bats, so when he returned to the Tribe in May, he already felt in midseason form.
“It helped a lot, not just physically, but mentally figuring out what I have to do (at the plate) — the little tweaks and things you go with in an at-bat” Decker said. “So when I got here I was ready to go and kept with that approach. And it’s paying off.”
Paying off two-fold, with Decker reaching base in all but two games since his return, and the Indians going 14-4 with Decker back on their roster.
Healthy Holdzkom Returns to ‘Pen (6/9)
After spending nearly a month on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue, right-hander John Holdzkom cleared the final hurdle to return to the Indians’ bullpen.
“He’s ready to go,” Indians pitching coach Stan Kyles said. “(Holdzkom) actually came to me the other day and asked when he was getting a chance to face real hitters again.”
The hard-throwing reliever tossed a couple bullpens in the later stages of his rehab process prior to his reinstatement on Tuesday, and said he “felt fine” after each of the workouts.
He took the mound at Rochester on June 9 with a 5-4 lead and used 17 pitches – 13 for strikes – to strikeout the side and earn his second hold on the season.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Holdzkom said. “I executed my pitches and was able to help the team keep this winning streak going.”
Holdzkom, who was a 40-man roster addition for the Pirates near the end of the 2014 campaign, attended big league Spring Training with Pittsburgh before being optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis on March 31. He went 1-0 with two saves in two opportunities and 17 strikeouts over 12 Triple-A appearances prior to his stint on the DL. But he also posted a 5.11 ERA with 13 walks and nearly a .270 batting average against.
The atypical results hinted last season’s near-perfect Holdzkom wasn’t quite back to form for the 2015 campaign.
“(While rehabbing this season) I was just doing a lot of exercises with our trainer and waiting for the strength to come back to my arm,” Holdzkom said. “I’ve thrown some bullpens and now I feel great.”
Slider, Circumstances Pace Sampson’s Emergence (6/7)
In 2013, Adrian Sampson began developing a changeup for his pitching repertoire.
He won only three of his first 18 starts with a 6.04 ERA for Hi-A Bradenton through mid-July, but after learning how, and when, to throw his changeup for strikes, finished the year with two wins and a 3.02 ERA over his last six starts.
“Everything was working for me,” Sampson said after the 2013 season. “(The changeup) was my big project…and it’s probably one of the reasons that I struggled so much early,”
This year, Sampson isn’t learning any new pitches — He’s just using what’s always worked:
The wipeout slider.
“That’s been the big strikeout pitch for me lately,” Sampson said. “It got away from me a little when I was working on the changeup, but now that I have the opportunity to throw all my pitches, I’m bringing the change, the fastball and now the curve and slider when I’m ahead, and I’m getting more strikeouts.”
Through 12 starts in his first full season at the Triple-A level, the righty is 6-3 with a 2.69 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 73 2-3 innings. He leads the league in strikeouts (by seven), is third in innings pitched and sixth in ERA.
Sampson has taken home honors as the International League Pitcher of the Week in two of the first eight weeks of the campaign, becoming the Tribe’s first two-time Pitcher of the Week since Justin Wilson in 2012.
“Starting right off the bat with success was key this year,” Sampson said. “(With all my pitches working) I’ve been striking guys out, and doing it efficiently.”
His stat line tells a similar story, as Sampson has worked through the sixth inning on fewer than 90 pitches six times this year. He’s pitched six or more innings in nine of his last 10 starts, only once exceeding a pitch count of 100.
“The numbers show I’m doing well,” Sampson said. “But behind the scenes, there is some stuff I need to work on, and that doesn’t show.”
No better time than now to master his craft.
With the unfortunate setbacks to his fellow top Pirates prospects Brandon Cumpton, Jameson Taillon and most recently, Nick Kingham, the once fourth-fiddle Sampson now has the spotlight. And he’s risen to the challenge.
“There are a lot of guys in (Pittsburgh’s system) – and especially with this team – that I’ve learned from, that have a lot of experience,” Sampson said. “It’s been bad luck for some of us getting hurt…but I’ve been put in a spot where I can help this organization.”